Does the CRC have a Culture of Fear and Conformity that is Hurting Us?

Touched a Nerve

My blog is normally a rather quiet, sleepy space where I do some musing for a few friends and readers and try to keep my links and thoughts organized and retrievable. In my last post I seemed to have touched a nerve with some people’s experience at Calvin Seminary (CTS). You can read the comments in the comment thread in yesterday’s posting.

My original purpose was not to critique CTS but rather to get a handle on Christian Reformed Church (CRC) culture and leadership. As I mentioned in my write-up on the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC) piece last week structure if far easier to talk about and adjust than culture.

  • Culture is implicit.
  • We create culture even when we don’t know that we’re doing it.
  • Culture governs in deeper ways than structure often.
  • Culture is difficult to recognize in ourselves because it is so close to us
  • Culture is emotionally difficult to evaluate and critique because we naturally get defensive for reasons we are not often conscious of.

When, as with the last posting you hit a nerve, it is usually a good indication that you may be touching culture. Once you touch it you may be able to talk about it.

Learning Leadership

While leadership can be studied and principles, practices and values can be articulated and discussed, I think leadership is best seen by modeling and learned by mentoring. This is especially true of where leadership and culture meet. Good leaders create culture even when they don’t know they are doing it.

To talk about leadership and culture in terms of “good” and “bad” tends to be reductive. Leadership and cultures pursue different values that may be helpful or unhelpful seeking different outcomes.

In history leadership in cultures that were successful (in a rather Darwinian sense in that they were able to propagate themselves and overcome their competitors) addressed the challenges of their age. Those cultures tend to get carried on and perpetuated but when the challenges change leadership, culture, institutions and structures must change too so that the narrative thread of a people or a tradition may continue to move forward. All of our talk about “adaptive change” is at this level. As an anxious community we are suspecting that we need to adjust leadership style, culture, and institutions in order for our narrative thread to continue to exist, be productive and impact broader narratives.

Leadership and Fear

Yesterday’s posting generated a lot of comments about fear. “Fear” is a big word that covers a lot. Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. Fear informs us of threats, as information, however a discerning person will evaluate the threats and decide on a response to the perceived threat. Fear is a pre-rational response. Our bodies instinctively react to physical threats, and our selves without our cultures and experiences likewise develop emotional responses and anticipatory responses to relational threats and threats to perceived goods that we possess consciously or pre-consciously. There’s a lot going on in this.

I think fear is one of the ways we can get a handle on culture and learn something about our selves and our communal tradition and narrative thread.

Leadership has everything to do with fear, how it informs us, what we learn from it and how we respond to it. Leadership is about helping a community navigate change and fear is a primary data point in knowing our world, even the implicit, relational, spiritual and murky world that is not easily available to us empirically. Leadership majors in responding to change and engaging fear productively.

  • Leaders respond to their own fears and the fears in their community
  • Leaders use fear sometimes to mobilize a community to address a threat or take action to impact and perpetuate their narrative thread
  • Leaders sometimes overcome fear realizing that wise courage is often a hallmark of good leadership.
  • Self-sacrifice is also a common hallmark of good leadership which also requires courage, confronting and engaging fear
  • Leaders assess fear as data so as to read what is not obvious or on the surface, understand what is implicit and to hear and know and love the people they are called to lead.

Fear at CTS of the “File”

I’ve received a lot of response from present and past students at CTS about their fears of being candid because it might jeopardize their reputation and their future in the CRC. I think this is an important data point, not as a facile critique of the CRC, CTS or our culture, but in terms of us understanding ourselves.

As a student at CTS I don’t remember being terribly afraid of my file (I mostly didn’t know there was one, I always assumed there was an implicit one, reputation is a reality) or not being allowed to be ordained in the CRC. I was naïve and becoming ordained wasn’t necessarily a high value for me. I wasn’t terribly conscious at that time in my life about jobs or my future career and unlike most students neither was I married or had children. As a single guy I had always been able to make enough money to live on, my needs were few and I didn’t give much thought about the future beyond wanting to make a contribution in one way or another.

I think it’s also the case that our temperaments and personalities impact this. Some of us can’t keep our mouth’s shut, like to blog, and don’t necessarily pay a lot of attention, for better or for worse, what we’re doing. This may be courage or it may be folly or it may be both.

Although I love the CRC and am in some ways intensely loyal to it and its institutions, part of my attitude was that I would work in the CRC or in some other place, wherever whatever I wanted to do seemed to fit best.

I remember my interview with the CTS board for licensure and the scuttlebutt we as students shared in preparation for this. Some of my classmates expected questions about Genesis and science. Others told me “they’re going to ask you about liberation theology.”

I remember thinking, “hmm, that’s interesting. I apparently have a reputation with my classmates and I have probably said and done things that have generated this with my professors who will pass this along to the board.” But again, I didn’t really worry about it. I’ve always been overly cocky and figured I’d be able to satisfy their concerns sufficiently to have it not be a problem. I had a sense for the community norms and knew I was both within them and could defense myself as being within them.

Now again, I was in a different place in life than many CTS students both then and now. I didn’t have a family to support. I didn’t have debt. I wasn’t as primarily concerned with employment as I was with finding interesting and meaningful work. After I in fact was employed I discovered that getting paid a salary was really rather nice! After I had a family to support I grew anxiety and responsibility to keep their little mouths fed and their little bodies clothed. I can better appreciate the fears of some of the students who wrote to me.

Before I get more comments about being unfair or not generous to the CTS faculty in the 80s, let me be clear. To a man (and they were all men) every CTS faculty member that I knew (and being a small school I knew them all to one degree or another) was a wonderful, Christian, godly man who at every exchange and interaction communicated to me that they wanted the best for me, my education and my future. They of course had their own opinions on things that might have differed with my own but in every case I can say there were on my side and wanted to help me develop into a leader who could contribute to the CRCNA. None of what I’m saying here is to take anything away from them in terms of their character or intentions. That said, they did also operate within a rather thick culture, which I will get at next.

Criticism and Conformity in the CRC Cultural Matrix

Other comments that arose said “I’d like to comment but I’m an employee of an agency.”

Again, as an employee of an agency you’ve got an obligation to be responsible in your public speech. We all get that. But we also get that this obligation also has its limits.

After reading all of the comments generated by my previous post I’ve come to appreciate the high value that CRC has in its cultural matrix on conformity. Cultural values are usually enforced positively and negatively. The CRC has a THICK culture and we implicitly enforce values both positively and negatively. One of our highest values as a culture is conformity.

I remember the first time I read through the church order at CTS. My overriding thought was “the CRC has a church order whose primary mission is to maintain doctrinal purity. It has established numerous check and balances to insure that generation after generation continue to maintain the doctrinal thread of its tradition.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is a wonderful value. All community narrative traditions must maintain their story line and doctrine is a foundational value for our confessional church. Also please don’t interpret what I am saying as “well we used to have to maintain value but now self-preservation requires that we change our doctrine in order to exist institutionally” OR “doctrine never changes but we can change our forms”. This was the seeker talk about doctrine that Willow liked to promote. Both ideas are too simplistic. Doctrine and a community’s narrative thread interact in deep and subtle ways.

What I want to note, however, is that because doctrinal traditions is such a deep value for us, we’ve got nerves all over it. If you get close to it people WILL respond, sometimes trying to enforce positively or negatively to reinforce the value, or to reject it for one reason or another. In a community people will respond in BOTH ways in may different expressions.

My point here is NOT ABOUT DOCTRINE (I have to yell because this is such a deep and sensitive value for us), it is about conformity as a cultural value.

Another data point on the conformity value was the alternate paths to ministry and the Credential pastor track. The denomination again and again has reinforced CTS as a primary vehicle for leadership training AND vetting. Why? Not because you can’t learn Reformed doctrine in other places, but because conformity is of such a high value to us, and conformity can be subtle and implicit, in the words of my beloved Church Ed. prof at CTS Spud Snapper “I’ve got to smell their breath”.

It is also important to note that if you’ve got a strong value like conformity there will often be an opposite reaction to it where people will create their identity in opposition to the value and the community. Think Paul Schrader making a movie named “Hardcore” with the main character being a CRC father thinly veiled, and while we might have covered our eyes at the naughty bits or didn’t even see the movie we’ve heard about it. Think Peter Kreeft’s defection to the RC.

Conformity as a strong culture value ALSO elicits defensiveness. This is natural cultural behavior.

Conformity as a strong cultural value also explains why we are often so clumsy when it comes to issues of diversity. Doctrinally we KNOW we need to be diverse, but our cultural value makes diversity difficult. Again, don’t get defensive about it, just recognize our challenges.

Conformity is a fine value. Every community has it. Every community needs it. The question at hand tends to be how strong is this value relative to others and how it is playing out as we engage our present challenges.

Why Conformity Is So Strong in Us

A lot I think has to do with our narrative thread.

Our narrative thread comes through a country that is pressed between France, Germany, the other great powers of Europe and the sea. We found it easier to take land from the sea than our neighbors. Is this telling us something?

The Netherlands was also a land of refugees (my roots are Jewish) and outliers. This is why the Reformed flourished there (as in Switzerland, another land of refugees) Conformity is a strong value by which a minority group struggles to maintain a cultural identity. When it came to America it had its survival values down.

A few more observations

  • Our system was built to resist Roman Catholicism (ours is a reactive tradition)
  • Because we’re a reactive system (and reaction can become a habit) schism was also a threat and so we’re on watch against that and built against that (unsuccessfully)
  • We have institutions built primarily for preservation, it was probably not imagined that the threats we would face would be like those we face today. Secularism tends to erode from within and underneath in ways that our conformist habits don’t address well.

Two Understandable Outcomes

First, I can understand why CTS students, agency employees and CRC pastors in general feel pressure to conform. It is safe to blend in with the masses. This is very different cultural value than we see in other cultural communities where obvious individual self-expression is valued. CRC folks often feel safer under the radar. We are like small mammals that like to burrow. Maybe hobbits too.

In a CRC institution you can do better by building a career slowly in the inside through conformity and reassuring others of your allegiance to the hive.

Second, it also helps explain why CRC leaders get outside of CRC institutions in order to thrive and make a larger impact in the world. Lew Smedes went to Fuller as did Rich Mouw. Nick Wolterstorff went to Yale. Alvin Plantinga went to Notre Dame. Bill Hybels started an non-denominational church. Peter Kreeft went to the RC. (Note how many of these are academics. I think we have a thinking vs. doing problem too, but that’s the subject of a different posting.)

Strong leaders will often break out of containment cultures in order to exert leadership more freely and broadly. A strong leader at CTS might just leave, or just choose Fuller or Westminster or Regent from the outset or skip seminary entirely.

Is Our Culture Helping Us? Should We Adjust it?

This is a hard question, one we can’t fully answer. It is a good question for discussion though.

We are probably in a cultural moment where innovation is likely more important to our narrative thread than conformity. That is of course subject to debate and will be debated. One faction of the church says the best way forward is to double down on our confessional tradition. Others want to highlight the catholiticy of our confession and cozy up to our liturgical and catholic roots. Others want to be more non-conformist. These factions will be the voices of our debate moving forward.

Leadership involves productively engaging fear, learning the context, acting and speaking.

Time’s up for me on this right now. I hope it generates some discussion. Please if you post on Facebook or CRC-Voices consider cutting and pasting in the comment thread too so that others not in those silos can benefit from your contribution. pvk



About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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13 Responses to Does the CRC have a Culture of Fear and Conformity that is Hurting Us?

  1. Pingback: CRC Synod 2014 Links |

  2. PaulVK says:

    My friend Scott Hoezee pushed back a bit on this as too vague and not accurate to CTS. This was my response in the hopes of clarifying what I’m saying. (Having to clarify a post in the comments is seldom a good sign of the quality of the post itself. 🙂 )

    I don’t see “conformity” as a negative value at all. Communities need a degree of conformity. I also agree that there are many in the CRC that would say that CTS doesn’t enforce enough “conformity”. Conformity is also not uniformity. Yes, I’m talking with broad strokes and it is vague, uneven and inconsistent because it is a cultural value.

    Compare for example how “conformity” as a cultural value plays in an RCA context. It’s obvious that there certainly is variability in the CRC, but there is more in the RCA. “Conformity” as a relative cultural value, something prized and esteemed, is not as high in the RCA as it is in the CRC, but surely it is in the RCA as well.

    Again, this is why it is terribly difficult to address culture, and probably the only way to talk about things are on relative terms.

    The CRC values “conformity” more highly than the RCA. I think that’s generally true. This gives CRC institutions and communities a different feel than RCA communities have.

    The broader question I want to address is, “Are there cultural elements within the CRC that are inhibiting the development of leaders that are impacting the world outside of CRC boundaries?”

    Of course there are, but again, if you look at the list in the piece, I would argue that those I pointed at HAD to leave CRC institutions to reach the full measure of their impact beyond the CRC. Why is that?

    Surely the PCA, for example with Tim Keller, has a strong value of uniformity, yet Keller and Redeemer as an institution are impactful beyond the PCA. Robert Schuller and his church within the RCA were impactful beyond the RCA but didn’t need to break out. Why? I don’t know. I’m looking for answers. I’d love to hear other ideas why this is?

  3. jonathan Averill says:

    Paul, I was in the Ecclesiastical Program for Ministerial Candidacy (EPMC) who attended Calvin Seminary for a short period of time 2008(@ 8 months) after Graduating from Gordon Conwell Seminary. I can definitely speak to the culture of fear that was definitely a part of Calvin Seminary at that time. I willing to cite solid examples of how intimidation was the norm at the Seminary. As a result, I feel that if I hadn’t had a clear calling to ministry my faith would definitely been challenged enough to not go in to the Military Chaplaincy through the CRC. Maybe if I had attended for the three years I would have gotten used to it, but as a “short” timer some of flaws of the assessment process were very clear. With the new president at Calvin Seminary maybe the climate has improved, but I for one applaud your willingness to question the culture of conformity.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks for your comment Jonathan. I’d be curious to hear how CTS compared to Gordon Conwell in this regard. pvk

      • Jonathan Averill says:

        One of the biggest issues is that CTS was for many years the sole “gatekeeper” in assessment for pastors going into ministry in the CRC. Other seminaries don’t have this pressure to make sure their students will be “good” pastors. The question then becomes, what does a good pastor look like? The default at CTS has been to see a “good” pastor one who narrowly fits the mold of a successful CRC pastor in the Midwest. For someone from the Northeast US, much of Midwestern CRC culture is not familiar and not relevant to my pastoral identity. Add on that my calling was to go into the Military Chaplaincy, or to a place outside of traditional CRC ministry; I felt in retrospect, the entire program was largely a waste of time and was merely a “hoop” to jump through. Don’t get me wrong, CTS has a certain amount of value for people going into traditional CRC ministry in traditional CRC locales. However, if you were called to do ministry outside those regions, I would argue CTS was not the best seminary for you. Another major issue that I had was the how the preceptors worked with the students, at times it could turn into an negative relationship. For example, I had go to see a psychologist who would assessed my fitness for ministry and then issued a report. I had a very positive assessment and I wisely (in retrospect) asked for a copy. In contrast, my preceptor’s response to my psychological assessment for pastoral fitness was very negative. After hearing what he had to say, I then asked him where he got this information because what he was saying wasn’t on the psychological assessment I had in front of me. He then seemed to get upset that I had a copy of the assessment and that he couldn’t hold that over me. He also seemed to be a little concerned that I had already completed a unit of CPE and said something along the lines,” if I hadn’t already done he would make me do it, because I needed to grow more in that environment in order to be a “good” pastor.” Interestingly enough my preceptor where I did my CPE , had a completely different assessment and looking back after five years of ministry I wonder whose assessment was more accurate. After I left the program I wrote a long email to head of the EPMC program stating my concerns. A lot of changes have been made to the EPMC program and from what I hear the much of what is done the pastoral assessment program is now very different. Over all I appreciate my connection to the CRC , but feel that there still exists a culture of conformity and that this will not change until more pastors come into the CRC that did not solely go to CTS.

    • PaulVK says:

      Can’t seem to reply to your second comment so I’ll do it here.

      Again, I appreciate your comment and your story.

      I do recall when I was at CTS in the 80s how often I too heard the staff intentionally training us for service in a “typical” CRC.

      What if the typical CRC is an endangered species? How then will CTS calibrate its cultural filter?

      In almost any leadership exercise there is a “preferred future” in mind. What if the “preferred future” started to die in 1978? Touch questions.

      Thanks again for your contribution.

      • Jonathan Averill says:

        That is the real issue here. The CRC at this time seems to not know its identity as a denomination possibly making it an endangered species. The CRC was founded largely on its Reformed theology first and ethnicity second. Somehow over the years the priorities switched and then in the 80s both they were largely replaced in a yearning to be part of the larger American Evangelical movement. Much of what made our denomination unique was lost and the reactionary founding of the URC in the 90s only accelerated the process. Now as the CRC faces a new century one has to ask what is the role of the CRC in North American society? Until that is sorted out the I believe CRC and CTS will continue to struggle in its assessment process to find pastors that have a meaningful impact on their large community.

  4. Julie says:

    I found this entry very interesting, and very accurate. I struggle to name what it was at CTS, or in the CRC, that made this fear and conformity a reality–but it was there. I had many professors at CTS who I would feel comfortable asking hard questions of, pushing back at, or “not conforming to.” They were wonderful. But at the same time, it is clear to me as I have now spent two years in ministry that I do have a fear and conformity issue! One particular way that I have noted this is the differences I see between CRC and RCA grads and pastors in a group I meet with regularly. There is a distinct and noticeable difference–to the point where our conversation shifted from the topic at hand to what we thought we were able to say publicly about the topic at hand based on how our churches or denominations would react–and had decidedly different responses from the two affiliations. I can’t help but wonder where that came from. We admire, quote, and encourage people like Smedes, Wolterstorff, Mouw and Hybels. But very few of us would feel safe to say the things they say in the public sphere. Is it their distance from the CRC that makes them acceptable as models? If they had stayed in our tradition to teach what they do, would we have encouraged them?

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks Julie for this comment. I’m increasingly thinking that the real benefit of the KEZ movement for the CRC might not be strategic or tactical but rather cultural. Not that we somehow adopt RCA culture, but that by getting to know another, very closely related denomination, we might become more aware of our own culture and might be able to evaluate it better.

      I very much appreciate your comment. pvk

  5. PaulVK says:

    Interesting comments onto the blog and in private continue to roll in on this. I think I’m also appreciating how much we haven’t created space to talk about some of these things productively. I think this is especially important for the younger generations where self-expression is such a foundational part of identity in community. You cannot assume leadership in a community until you know your place in it, and feel you are known in it.

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